Will Star Power Make the Difference?

Heather Szerlag
March 1, 1996

More than a year after President Clinton first called for a non-governmental initiative to address America's teen pregnancy crisis, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is finally underway. The group has raised high expectations in its drive to involve national leaders in an effort to reduce U.S. teen pregnancies by a third within a decade - but has also raised questions concerning its initial failure to include leading family groups like Planned Parenthood.

With the backing of the President, the group has pulled-in top notch advocates and practitioners, high profile political leaders, media savvy ad executives, and Hollywood star power. But the initiative - which has yet to garner major foundation support and is contending with one of the most politically fractious issues of our day - will need all the help it can get.

The President Proposes

In his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton declared teen pregnancy "our most serious problem" and called for a group that could work with all sectors of society in ending teen pregnancy.

Clearly, the President was speaking of a real need. Nearly one million U.S. teens become pregnant each year, and with a birth rate of 60.2 per 1,000 teens, and nearly twice that in black and Hispanic communities - it remains the highest in the industrialized world.

Then deputy domestic policy advisor Bill Galston approached Jody Greenstone Miller, a David Gergen aide who was leaving the White House, and asked whether she would be willing to "catalyze" the private sector initiative. Miller agreed and spent several months "on her own nickel," talking with policymakers, practitioners, and youth advocates, eventually hitting upon Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, as her main adviser.

The duo's work ultimately lead to a meeting last October hosted by the President which brought about the start of the high profile Campaign and the nucleus of an impressive board headed up by former Governor Thomas Kean (R-N.J.), and including, among others, actress Whoopi Goldberg, MTV President Judy McGrath, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Nuts and Bolts

"The president didn't want another group without a specific function," said White House staffer Sarah Abrams. But in an election year Clinton did want the campaign to be up and running and, perhaps precipitously, announced its formation at a January press conference.

At that time, the President also announced that Dr. Henry Foster, whose nomination to the post of surgeon general was scuttled by anti-abortion foes in Congress, will act as an unpaid liaison to the Campaign and Administration adviser on teen pregnancy.

Said campaign president Isabel Sawhill of the media glare focused on the initiative, "We have a staff of one." She added the organization didn't officially exist until late February.

The campaign so far has set up task forces on the media, coalition building, research and religion, culture, and public values. But beyond its goal of attracting the interest of national leaders the group will need funding to move ahead.

The campaign has been running on $80,000 in planning grants. But according to Sarah Brown, the campaign's director and a former senior study director at the Institute of Medicine, they are "reaching the end of those funds."

Cautiously excited would best sum up the foundation community's response to the campaign. Gary Wilson, a program officer at the California Wellness Foundation, might have been speaking for the whole field when he said, "At the moment we don't have any plans to (fund the initiative), which is not to say we won't." Wilson added that Presidential involvement in this sort of undertaking was "extraordinary," but his foundation would wait to see how the campaign "proceeds."

Ruth Wooden of the New York-based Advertising Council discussed how the campaign's media strategy, a major component of the initiative, might "proceed." The Advertising Council helps nonprofits put together media campaigns, and their previous accounts include the United Negro College Fund's, "A Mind is A Terrible Thing To Waste."

Wooden said that it's too premature to be thinking in terms of message or target audience, but recommended the campaign specifically target ads, to "encourage mothers of thirteen year old girls to have an explicit conversation with their daughters, for Instance."

David Mecklen from Oglivy and Mather, one of the hottest advertising firms in New York, has been chosen as the campaign's ad "talent," said Wooden, but she added, "everything was on hold until the campaign raises the money" to pay for production costs.

The campaign's ties to state and local coalitions would be a "terrific asset," said Wooden because they would enable the campaign to distribute materials to the local media. "It's good to have a state coalition in Georgia because they can handle the local media in Atlanta in a way that you can't," said Wooden.

Campaign board member Barbara Huberman is heading up the initiative's state and local coalition task force. Currently director of training for DC-based Advocates for Youth, Huberman was tapped for her experience as the President of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina.

While the task force is still working out a plan, Huberman said the goal is to have effective coalitions in all 50 states. "Prevention will not happen on the national level," she said, "it will happen at the local level - with Sunday school teachers, in clinics and in boys and girls clubs."

Another cornerstone of the campaign is its task force on religion, culture and public values. It intends to foster national discussion about societal influences upon teen pregnancy, a contentious topic which in the past has hindered many joint efforts dealing with issues of teen sexuality and pregnancy.

Open Tent?

The campaign's January meeting in New York exemplifies the nonpartisan tight rope the group is now walking. The standing room only event, described by Bill Galston as, "exciting, exhilarating, a dream come true, even," drew high power youth advocates, practitioners, members of the advertising, foundation and media communities - among them celebrity Jane Fonda, abstinence promoter Jo Ann Caspar, and the Children's Defense Fund's Cliff Johnson.

Said Betty King of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "it was a good meeting ... it brought together a very diverse group of people who had been working on the issue for a very long time." But for some, the meeting was not diverse enough.

Conspicuous in their absence were Planned Parenthood and Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), liberal groups with decades of expertise in promoting comprehensive sex education and family planning.

"We were not included in the initial meetings and we're disappointed by that. We've met with Isabel Sawhill and Sarah Brown and both have assured us that we will have a role," said SIECUS' president Deborah Haffner.

"We're not viewing this as a political exercise, this is a citizen lead effort, not an effort to appease every group," said Sawhill.

It is not only groups on the left that are feeling neglected.

"I had the distinct impression we were a façade," said Project Reality's Kathleen Sullivan other discussions with campaign leaders. The Chicago-based Project Reality promotes abstinence education.

Jo Ann Gaspar, President Ronald Reagan's chief of Population Affairs who was called the "Olile North of HHS" for attempting to chop Planned Parenthood federal funds, said that while January meeting was "heartening," she disagreed with the campaign's bent. "The campaign should be looking at preventing premature sexual activity, if you define the problem as pregnancy, the solution becomes contraception," said Gaspar.

"It is impossible to bring the right to the table on these issues. They're not interested in being part of any dialogue that does not say no sex until heterosexual marriage," returned Haffner.

"We're a very diverse country and can't expect uniformity of views ... we should listen in a respectful way and not demonize those with whom we might not agree," said Sawhill.

"Ultimately," though, says board member Huberman, "we have to make decisions about what strategies the campaign supports."

Despite the potential for contentious debate and the fact that it is still early days for the initiative, many consider the campaign a success already for having focused the national spotlight upon teen pregnancy. In the coming months the trick for the new initiative will be keeping it there. Contact: (202) 857-8531.

Szerlag, Heather. "Will Star Power Make the Difference?"Youth Today, March/April 1996, p. 37.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.